Bruce Kafil, Founder of Celeste Helicopter Tours
Flying started as a hobby for me. I knew that I always wanted to be a pilot and I distinctly remember studying for the bar exam and telling my dad that one day, I wanted to fly the little airplanes that were taking off from Hawthorne Municipal Airport. Seven years later, on my 27th birthday, my parents gifted me what’s called a discovery flight, which is the first lesson or flight with an instructor. You go up, you take the controls for a little bit, and you get a feeling for if it’s something that you want to continue. And, sure enough, I was hooked and decided to continue with it.
I started flying totally for fun and I obtained my private pilot’s license in 2013. Two years later, I got my instrument rating, which allows you to fly into clouds and inclement weather. A little bit after that, I got into a partnership with someone I had just met recently, and we decided to buy an airplane together. Unfortunately, that partnership lasted only about a year, and we sold the plane. I found myself at a crossroads. I didn’t really want to rent a plane again, so I decided that if I was going to make the jump into helicopters, which was another dream of mine, that this would be a good time to do it.
I started to train with Group 3 Helicopters based out of Van Nuys, California, and after about 68 hours of flight time, I became a private helicopter pilot. About a year later, I bought my own first little helicopter, which was the same one that I had trained in, and got my commercial license. All in all, I never entered this industry with the intention of making money or making it a career. It started as a passion, and then turned into a business.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was watching a James Bond movie and I remember a character telling another character about how she studied law at Oxford, which sort of triggered my thinking. I never really thought about studying law in England and how that could be different than doing it here. Seeing this on the screen just kind of opened a can of worms. I did tons of research and before I was even in high school, I knew I wanted to study law – and I knew I wanted to do it in England. The main reason to do this in England was that you’re allowed to study law as an undergrad. You would graduate high school, which they call their A-levels, and then you could go straight into university for a specific subject. I decided to tailor my entire high school experience around applying to schools in the UK, specifically to my dream school, Oxford. I did everything to maximize my chances of getting there. I told my parents I wanted to go to a private school, so I could take more Advanced Placement classes, and I transferred to an all-boys catholic private school when I was a freshman in sophomore year. I was also studying on Saturdays and taking online AP classes.
Besides applying for Oxford, I also applied to Nottingham University, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics and one other safety school. Just to be safe, I also applied to a couple of schools here in the US; to Stanford, where I was rejected early; to Columbia, where I was waitlisted and never removed off of the waitlist. And I applied to NYU, which I did get into. I wasn’t accepted into Oxford, though. In the end, sadly, I blew the interview with Oxford, but I was accepted into the London School of Economics.
Even though I didn’t have as much energy in my senior year, as I did in my sophomore and junior years, I just gave it my all. I went to the London School of Economics, and I achieved a little dream. It was a unique thing to be studying law and the fact that they’re a top three law school in the UK made it very special to me. While at LSE, I was also accepted into a double degree program, which consisted of two more years at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. In the end, I graduated with law degrees from both universities at the age of 22.
Credit: Bruce Kafil
Deciding against a career in law, even though I worked so hard on becoming a lawyer in the first place, was actually very easy. I was so self-motivated by my own desire to achieve these goals. Becoming a lawyer didn’t necessarily mean that I wanted to do this for other people professionally. I was motivated to be a lawyer for my own benefit, not to necessarily solve other people’s problems and pick up the pieces after they got themselves into a bad situation. It actually turned me off during my second year of USC. I did a summer associateship at the law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp in West LA. They were famous for representing the RIAA against Napster. It was right in the field that I was most interested in: intellectual property and copyright law. I found out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to do litigation. I didn’t like fighting on paper, and having a client that was anticipating a legal battle. It’s not to say that I could not have done transactional work, but just going to the office every day and having my name on the door didn’t excite me. I wasn’t amazed by it. It took a little bit of hard wrangling on my behalf though; my parents were a bit shocked. After all of this investment, in the end I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But they still allowed me to just continue and pursue other interests.
After I graduated law school, I built my first single family dwelling. I was designing houses and living quarters that I thought were ideal for students. I had just been there and there was a lack of student housing. Today the hole has been filled, but I was definitely one of the first ones to see that. I was able to pick up a property around 2008/2009, which was a perfect time for buyers. After working on that first house, the brother-in-law of my contractor was a property manager for a local apartment building nearby. Attached to that building was a very old warehouse with over 7,500 square feet and the owner was willing to lease it to me for a very low rate. I ended up striking a very good deal, drafting and signing my first lease after law school and opened my first restaurant, Lotus on Flower, located on Flower St, just a block and a half from USC. We offered Sushi and Hookah as a unique twist. I ran this restaurant for another seven years of my 20s and it was a tremendous success. What ended the project was the city of LA started coming down on us and enforcing “no smoking in the workplace” laws as well as rules against smoking in eating establishments. Because the building was a historical monument, we were not eligible to alter the facade of the building so that we could comply with open air requirements for smoking establishments. So we made the decision to close the business and sublease the property.
Technically, we could have just moved to another location, but I had already lost interest around year five, when my mom picked it up and decided she wanted to run it for a couple years. You have to keep in mind that 7,500 square feet is a lot of space, and it was tough to create that same intimate vibe that we had renting property somewhere else. We had these carpets in middle eastern style one-foot off of the ground, with a hookah serving these elevated platforms. Finding that kind of space again would be almost impossible in LA without spending significant sums of money for rent and renovation. I think the restaurant experience was a very character-building time of my life. But I knew that I couldn’t see myself as a restaurateur for the rest of my life. I see it as a passion project that was just appropriate for the time. It was successful. And then it just ran its course. So we said goodbye to it, which was very hard. But it was an interesting time of my life.
Credit: Bruce Kafil
I´m a very ambitious person and not really afraid of doing something completely different. I just go after what I like doing, that’s probably the best way to describe it. I don’t discriminate about income, prestige or anything like that. I don’t let those factors affect my decision of what I like to do. I just go towards what doesn’t feel like work. If it doesn’t feel like work, then that’s what I like to keep doing. Once it feels tedious, then maybe it’s time to change it up. My dad is an interesting entrepreneur himself. He started as a PhD in chemistry and worked for a major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey for several years. Later on, in his 40s, he went to med school and he became an MD. Nowadays, he doesn’t do anything related to practicing medicine. Even though he´s a board-certified family practitioner. So I guess you could say it runs in the family – learning and doing other things.
Flying helicopters is today my full-time job, but it’s not my only source of income, and it will never be my only source of income. I’m a general contractor in the state of California. Together with my parents, we do fix and flips and new construction. And then I’m also a property manager. I hang on to a lot of these projects, and I rent them out. I write my own leases and make sure that they’re occupied and generating cash flow.
Part of the reason I even started this helicopter business was so I could keep the helicopter and about finding a way or a reason to fly daily. This model has a 12 year and or 2200-hour overhaul requirement, which is a federal law that states that the helicopter must be overhauled at the 2200-hour mark, or 12 years, whichever comes first. And when I built the helicopter during the pandemic, I wasn’t flying it enough in the following two years to justify not having to waste a bunch of money, because at the end of the 12 years, whether you flew it one hour or 2200 hours, you have to overhaul the whole thing. So, I started the tour company as a way to be able to add hours, be able to build hours for myself, as well as not have to sell the helicopter, because otherwise it would have just been a paperweight at the end of 12 years.
I´m a one-man-show running this business and I love it this way. I think that’s probably the restaurant experience rubbing off on me. I hated the things that I couldn’t be in control of. And employees are probably the number one thing that you can’t control. I like to think of myself as a punctual person, on time and delivering a top-quality service. Running this by myself, I’m able to maintain that standard if it’s just me. I also don’t think it would generate enough income to support living in LA. I’m lucky that I can do this as a third hustle, full-time, but not as the main thing.
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